Hip to the Jive! Balance and the Modern Cocktail

Balance 2Balance in a cocktail is far more important than the number of ingredients. Many of the classic cocktails, the ones that have stood the test of time have only three ingredients—the Side Car, the Manhattan, the Martini. And these “simple” cocktails can be some of the hardest to get right (more on that some other time). There are many other classics that contain a shopping list of ingredients, especially those of the Tiki variety (the ones in funny mugs with little paper umbrellas and a couple of straws).

I think that many modern mixologists simply try too hard. Look at a current cocktail menu and you’d be hard pressed to recognize half of the ingredients, and there seems to be an awful lot of them (ingredients, not menus).

Example: Beet infused Evan Williams bourbon, Ardbeg scotch, house falernum, maple, walnut orgeat, mole bitters, and egg white. Ah, yeah…. If you are going put both bourbon and scotch in the same drink, you better know what you are doing. Between the bourbon, the scotch, and the walnut orgeat there’s a lot of wood in this drink. When I had one all I tasted was maple and, I think, the home-made fulernum which made the drink taste like a maple candy that had fallen on a sawdust covered floor then dusted off on someone’s wool sweater.

I really hope that infusing everything with beets, or grapefruit, or cocoa nibs, or whatever else they can think of is a passing fad. The people who make Evan Williams bourbon work very hard to get their product tasting just the way they like it. Why infuse their ingredients with basil, Vadouvan masala or anything else? Put a dash of beet juice in the drink if you want, but let the liquor speak for itself. If you told Jerry Thomas (great-grandfather of modern mixology) you wanted to infuse his bourbon with beets he’d have punched you in the face. He might water down his bourbon, but beet juice was right out!

z- jerry thomas blue blazer

Jerry Thomas behind the bar.

And before anyone shouts to have my head put on a pike, I am in no way trying to squelch experimentation or house-made ingredients, but it should be done intelligently.

Balance still gives bartenders, both professional and amateur, a bit of trouble. It should. It’s difficult. Now, some of this will come down to personal taste. Drinks can be sour, or dry, or boozy, or herbal, or floral, or any or all these things, and the more ingredients you throw into the mix, the more careful you have to be to get the proportions right. If an ingredient is not bringing anything to the party, leave it out. If it has taken over the drink so you taste nothing else, you need to sit them in the corner and give them a stern talking to.

Balance doesn’t mean symmetrical as in a cocktail made of equal measures of all ingredients. It simply means that all the ingredients are working together to create a coherent whole. In a well balanced cocktail, even a complicated one, each sip should bring you something different—a voyage of discovery, not a palate-assaulting invasion. The following recipe, dating from the 1880s, has one more ingredient than the example given above. The difference is that this one works.

Ramos Gin Fizz

2 oz Old Tom Gin

1 oz Cream

1 Egg White

1 oz Simple Syrup

1/2 oz Lemon Juice

1/2 oz Lime Juice

2 dashes Orange Flower Water

1 oz (approx.) Soda Water

Vigorously dry shake all ingredients except soda water, then add ice and shake normally. Strain into chilled glass and top with soda water.

There’s as much alchemy as chemistry to making a good cocktail. Now, go forth and do great things.